Who is staging Trump’s actions?

Normally, preparation for a major summit or international meeting is so tight and thorough that events are virtually scripted.  Every meeting, every interview, every utterance is planned in advance to ensure that they contribute to the desired outcome.

Last week, President Trump had three major international meetings.  The first in Brussels was with the leaders of our most vital alliance (NATO).  The second in Britain was with the Prime Minister of one of our oldest and closest allies.  The third was with the President of the chief disruptor of the international system, namely Russia — the country that in the last four years has annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, supported a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, vigorously supported the detestable and criminal Assad regime in Syria, carried out attempted chemical assassinations of Russians taking refuge in Britain, offered alternative weapons systems to a member of NATO (Turkey), and carried out systemic and lengthy cyber-attacks on the elections of countries in Europe and the U.S.

This was a great opportunity — Trump’s advisors could have staged this week to greatly strengthen the US and constrain Russia.  By starting with a strong show of unity and strength with NATO, then demonstrating the lasting bond between the US and the United Kingdom, the President would have been able to come into Helsinki in a position of strength, with Trump speaking with the voices of the US and its allies to confront Putin over his disruptive behavior, and deliver a message of how that behavior needs to change for Russia to ever be free of sanctions, and return to normal relations with the Western community of nations.

Instead, the President not only went off script, but entirely reversed that script in a way that could only have been devised by thoughtful event planners in Moscow.  From Russia’s perspective, the ideal plan for this trip would be for Trump to go to NATO and stage a surprise attack on the NATO allies, making ridiculous and chaotic demands and sowing maximum confusion and disruption.  From there, it would be ideal if Trump created a disaster in Britain by giving a newspaper interview incredibly critical of the Prime Minister timed to appear just when she was hosting him at her state country retreat; advised PM May to take the most hard-line and disruptive negotiating approach to Brexit imaginable (harder than even the hard-line Brexiteers); insult the monarchy by keeping the Queen waiting for a rare royal meeting; and kick PM May while she was down by praising her chief rival as a great choice to take over her job.

Weakened by these stunning disasters, having sown dismay and disarray in Europe, Trump would arrive in Helsinki in a weakened, isolated position. He could then cement Russia’s triumph by taking a wholly private, secret meeting with Putin during which Putin could extract secrets or bend Trump to his will, followed by a public press conference in which Trump repudiates US intelligence critical of Russia, and raises none of the instances of Russia’s disruptive behavior.   Instead, Trump would blame U.S. stupidity, and its own investigation of Russia’s election meddling, as the main reasons for the prior bad relations between U.S. and Russia.   Trump would thus demonstrate his overwhelming loyalty and desire to win the approval and amity of President Putin.

In sum, Trump’s conduct during these three international meetings is too bizarre to simply be a mass of unforced errors; it certainly did not follow a script planned by any officials seeking to improve U.S. strength and influence in the world.  Instead, it seemed to follow a script carefully devised in Moscow to create maximum fear and disarray in Europe and display the maximum prestige and power of President Putin.

Is this even possible?  Consider:  Trump opened the NATO meeting at what was supposed to be a casual “meet and greet” breakfast with a stunning and totally unexpected attack on Germany.  For what?  For being under the control of Russia!  Trump–who is famous for not reading briefing books–somehow was prepared with details about the Nord Stream II pipeline project, and wholly erroneous but factual-sounding statistics about Germany’s impending dependence on Russia for 70% of its energy.    Where on earth did Trump get this information?  Can we believe that Def. Secretary Mattis or Sec. of State Pompeo or Chief of Staff Kelly carefully rehearsed Trump for this attack and supplied him with these false statistics?  Can we believe that Trump did his own research, and then planned this attack to achieve maximum disruption to start the NATO summit? No–none of these is really plausible.  It is at least equally plausible to suggest that someone whose interests are aligned with the Kremlin thought it would be ideal to have Trump attack Germany for what the U.S. is so obviously guilty of, namely vulnerability to Russian influence, and that person somehow was able to get that suggestion (and supporting data) to Trump.

Why did Trump follow this up with the crazy demand that NATO members escalate their defense spending not to the 2% already agreed upon, but to 4% of GDP — a level that that not even the U.S. achieves?   Trump could have taken an easy victory by insisting that NATO members accelerate their progress to the 2% goal, and announcing that members agreed to do so.  Instead, by putting forth a ridiculous and unattainable goal, embellished with the bizarre claim that the U.S. pays for 90% of NATO spending, Trump made clear his feeling that nothing NATO members do will ever be enough.  This cast doubts on whether the U.S. commitment to NATO, and to the defense of its members, can be counted on.

On to Great Britain.  Why on Earth would Trump give a newspaper interview so terrifically critical of PM May that he knew would appear while he was still in the country and being hosted by the PM herself?  What U.S. staff person would permit this to happen during a high-value summit, much less plan such an event in advance?  And what could be more hurtful to PM May than to publicly praise her chief rival, former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, as a highly capable successor to take over as PM? But of course for someone promoting the Kremlin agenda of disrupting vital U.S. alliances, that is exactly the action you would script for maximum damage.  Add to this that Trump reportedly advised PM May to not negotiate with the EU but to sue them over Brexit (in what court?), a suggestion that even PM May found dismissively ridiculous.   It is hard to imagine what more Trump could have done to deliver a disastrous outcome for a summit in Britain, even with his foolish-looking public denial of the statements he made in the recorded interview that The Sun had just published.

Then on to Helsinki to meet with Putin.  Why on earth would Trump need a secret, completely off-the-record meeting, with no U.S. staff, officials, or even note-takers present, with one of America’s major international opponents?   This is not only wholly unprecedented and universally considered unwise.   It makes no sense!   What if Putin made some private promise to do something desirable — how could Trump ever hold him to it if Trump had no written record of it?   And if Trump stumbled and made some error or concession in private, how could he correct it if only Putin held a record of their conversation?  This makes no sense at all, unless Trump has something to hide — as in his confession to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in an earlier private meeting (where there was an American note-taker) that Trump had greatly relieved himself of a problem by firing FBI Director Comey.

Then Trump’s answers at the ensuing press conference were so bizarre that they shocked the world.  True, they did echo tweets Trump had issued the night before: that the main problem in US-Russia relations was the Mueller investigation into Russia’s interference in US elections.  Yet how could Trump maintain that this was still a “phony witch hunt” in light of the highly detailed indictment of a dozen Russian military intelligence officers issued just the prior Friday?  Trump’s own staff surely could have counseled him to be cautious, that a direct repudiation of Russian meddling would look foolish in light of the detailed indictment.  They could have urged him to focus on Russian actions in Syria or eastern Ukraine and stress that he and Putin were working on solutions to promote world peace.  Instead, Trump kept to his ridiculous line, repeatedly complementing President Putin for “looking very, very strong.”  It seemed that one element of the private meeting must have been for Putin to coach or lean on Trump to follow a common line — that there has been no real Russian misbehavior; that the U.S. intelligence findings are debatable or not certain; and that accusations of Russian misbehavior are harmful and the main impediment to better U.S.-Russian relations.

It may seem logical that Trump’s series of actions throughout these high-level summits reflect a planned assault on U.S. alliances, Europe and NATO, culminating in a scripted show of obeisance to Russia.  But how is it possible for Trump to have received such instructions to enact this script?

The answer may lie in the repeated efforts of the Trump team to set up a “back channel” from Trump to the Kremlin that would be secret from U.S. intelligence and White House staff.  This was rumored to be the topic of discussions between Jared Kushner and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.  There were meetings in Trump Tower, and in the Seychelles, that appear to have explored this topic.   These are just what has so far come to light.  What if there was a successful effort to set up a back channel by which the Kremlin could communicate to Trump ideas or scripts to follow in key moments?  If Putin indeed has something on Trump, capable of providing leverage — whether it is in return for Russian help in getting Trump elected, or information about Trump’s behavior or financial dealings — how could they exercise that leverage without some back channel to communicate suggested actions to their puppet?

To be sure, there is yet no evidence that Putin has leverage over Trump, or that such a back channel exists.  But Trump’s behavior this week through three high-level international meetings is almost wholly inexplicable unless someone was providing directions on exactly what Trump should do, day by day and almost hour by hour, to create maximum damage to America’s international interests and maximum benefit to Russia’s.

Is that a rampant and extreme speculation?  Yes it is.  But until there is another explanation for Trump’s behavior through this week that makes better sense of his detailed and specific actions and utterances, it is as good as any.  And that should be cause for enormous concern.

 

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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